Buying a used car on eBay

According to the route plan, it's 1,036.75 miles from my driveway to this particular address in Springfield, and it should have taken me 16 hours and 55 minutes to get here.

Yes, that was about right. It will take me a lot longer to get home, though, thanks to the trailer with the 1970 International Harvester Scout on it I'll be towing. Exactly why I came to Illinois from Florida to buy a homely, faded little Scout must be considered One Of Those Things, but the short answer is: That's where the Scout I wanted lived.

How it happened, though, that's easier to explain: eBay. Founded in 1995, the San Jose, Calif.-based online marketplace,, began selling used cars in 2000, and by 2002, was selling 300,000 a year. This year, that number could approach 700,000.

How does eBay make money on selling cars? The company charges $40 to list your vehicle, and another $40 if someone bids on it, whether you sell it or not. If you want to sell a vehicle on "reserve," meaning you specify that you have to get a minimum price for the vehicle or you won't sell it, that's another $5. Want a border around the ad? $4. Boldface type, another $5. If you want to run the ad for 10 days, instead of the usual three, five or seven days, it's $8.

Of course, it's probably worth it. The company claims that each month, 10 million shoppers visit eBay Motors_that's what it calls its automotive section_and that a vehicle is sold every 60 seconds.

So how does eBay work?

Click on the Web site, then click on "eBay Motors" at the top left. It will ask what sort of vehicle you are looking for. Let's say that, unlikely as it may be, you want an International Harvester Scout. Search for that, and at the very moment I'm writing this, you'll find 24 of them. A couple of sellers seem to think their Scouts are worth $12,500, because that's the price they've listed in the "Buy It Now!" feature. This means that if you know you want it and don't want to risk losing it at auction, you can buy it now for that price. It costs the seller an extra dollar to list a "Buy It Now!" price.

Then you have other Scouts that, well, are less than showroom-fresh. One rusty specimen, after three days, has yet to earn a bid, though the seller asks that the bidding start at a modest $300.

In the middle is a clean little 1971 Scout. The seven-day listing has only three hours and 47 minutes remaining, and there are 39 bids for it, starting at $150, with the current high bid $2,800. It's helpful that the seller, who goes by the name "Beerfarm1" (you select your own alias), has excellent "feedback." This means that people who have done business with him in the past, buyers or sellers, post their comments under Beerfarm1's profile. There are 52 comments, all positive. "Excellent transaction — thanks!" one says. "Great transaction. Highly recommended," says another.

This is important. Tony Sheffler, an Atlanta-area car enthusiast, recently bought a Pontiac GTO on eBay, even though he was the second-highest bidder. "I read the comments about the high bidder," Sheffler said, "and they weren't very favorable. I e-mailed the seller and told him that if the transaction fell through, to call me. It did, and the seller called the next week."

Sometimes it's the buyer who must beware. "You have to be careful," said Tim Suddard, publisher of the Ormond Beach, Fla.-based Grassroots Motorsports magazine, and a regular eBay customer. "The more you know about what you are buying, and who you are buying it from, the better."

Indeed, not everyone is a fan of eBay. There's a Web site,, hosted by a man who identifies himself as "Doc," and says he is a Clearwater, Fla.-based eBay customer who started the site to help expose scams — not scams perpetrated by eBay itself, but by scammers who attempt to buy and sell with no intention of delivering goods or funds. Before you buy or sell, go to the bottom of the eBay home page, and click on "Security Center" — there's an excellent tutorial on how to identify scam artists and protect your transaction.

One way eBay says the buyer and seller can be protected is to let PayPal handle the transaction. PayPal is an online payment service that acts as an intermediary between buyer and seller. The buyer pays PayPal with a credit card or bank-account withdrawal, and PayPal deposits the money in the seller's PayPal account. Fees depend on the size and nature of the transaction. In 2002, eBay bought PayPal, so it's all pretty seamless.

Obviously, the central problem with eBay — in buying vehicles, at least — is the potential, probable distance between buyer and seller. Of the current Scouts listed, none are in Florida — there's one in Oregon, another in Washington, even one in Canada. If you're shopping for something easily shipped or mailed, it isn't an issue. But if you have to go pick up a vehicle, or pay as much as $1 a mile for a professional auto-delivery service to handle the shipping, it's a hassle. Not to mention the fact that it's often impossible not only to get a test drive, but even a look at the vehicle. That's why reputable sellers will post a dozen or more detailed photos of the vehicle, including shots of any dents, rust or rips in the upholstery, and divulge that information in the description of the vehicle.

Sometimes sellers will post the VIN, or vehicle identification number. You can punch that number into CarFax ( and check the vehicle's history before you ever bid on it. Checking one vehicle costs $19.99. For $24.99, you can check as many as you want for 30 days.

The central advantage of eBay is that you can find two dozen International Harvester Scouts for sale, a vehicle that hasn't been built since 1980. Less rare vehicles can be located locally at, but that site doesn't even have a listing for Scouts.

So how did my purchase work out? Bidding was spirited at the last minute, but my $1,200 bid won out, which was good, as that was my limit. The seller was a nice, honest guy; the Scout was as advertised. The trip to Illinois and back cost about $400, most of that in gasoline, but was otherwise uneventful.

And now the Scout lives in Florida, awaiting some minor mechanical work that will make it street-worthy. Until then, it has been happily towing fallen limbs from the last hurricane to the big pile that will eventually be a bonfire.

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